The American (Apparel) way

The recent news that American Apparel might open its second Seattle store on Broadway has brought out a small chorus of understated praise from community leaders, hoping this just might be the corner turning point that brings Capitol Hill's main shopping street "back."

I'm old enough to remember when downtown's business leaders expressed much more open hopes about another out-of-state chain moving in and saving the day. Yes, the neglected Sixth Avenue, a low-foot-traffic, low-excitement street ever since Doces Furniture moved out in the '70s, would be rescued from blighthood. Commuters and suburbanites who'd avoided or shunned the city after dark would now linger. They'd spend their big bucks and make the whole place safer by the mere presence of their white-middle-class selves. And one big "destination" tenant would make it all start. One company, backed by an unprecedented reputation for "hip" marketing, would start the whole turnaround.

As it turned out, downtown Seattle retail "came back" by itself - or rather, it had never really "gone away." Sixth Avenue remained a relatively low-foot-traffic spot, now anchored by one California apparel chain (Old Navy) at the former site of another (I. Magnin). And the Planet Hollywood restaurant, that would-be lynchpin of the brave new downtown, has been shuttered and vacant for four years now.

So it's easy to understand one reason why the arrival of American Apparel on Broadway has engendered quieter notes of hopefulness. For another reason, the store's going to be small (smaller than the company's University Avenue store). And it's at the relatively bustling, prosperous corner of Broadway and John, not the more forlorn blocks further north by East Mercer Street.

Still, it's important that a company with money to spend has chosen to spend it here. And it might be even more important that this particular company chose this particular neighborhood for the reasons it did.

If you believe the daily papers (and I'll understand if you don't, after those nasty revelations about that New York Times reporter getting too professionally cozy with the White House PR machine), American Apparel wants to place its retail outlets in urban neighborhoods that have a hip cachet and young-adult customers, but which aren't too teeming with other national chains. Streets with street credibility, as it were.

This is a chain that actually wants to be on streets where pierced boys and tattooed girls hang out. It wants to be perceived as a harbinger of affordable style among a population segment the company believes to be young America's tastemakers.

This means: "Those Kids Today," the guys n' gals who hang out on Broadway with their weird clothes, their weird hair and their weird attitudes, the people you might have perceived as being a potential threat to the neighborhood's revival, could actually be a key element in its revival.

Of course, some of these kids might not exactly want to hear that.

Today's young adults could be the most aggressively marketed-to generation in history. They consume less ad-based mainstream media (TV, magazines, newspapers) than any previous generation; but that just means marketers try extra hard to reach them. Many of these young adults are all too aware of this situation, and have created rebellious self images around it, inspired by Adbusters magazine and Naomi Wolf's book "No Logo."

American Apparel tries to cater to this sentiment by keeping conspicuous logos off of its products. The company also boasts of its all-domestic (though non-union) production lines in Los Angeles, as opposed to the overseas sweatshops to which most other casual-clothing companies outsource their manufacturing. To American Apparel, the line "Made in U.S.A." isn't meant to appeal to conservative patriotism but to radical chic.

But as any regular Adbusters reader will tell you, radical-chic marketing is still marketing. Some big company still wants your money and your loyalty, by selling you an attractive image of yourself.

As part of the process, this particular company will try to sell Capitol Hill an attractive image of itself.

Clark Humphrey's column appears in the first issue of each month. His long-running Web site on popular culture is

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